*Plays David Bowie’s ‘Starman’ aggressively*
Where there is humanity, there is sex. Now, humans are horny creatures, which is fine on earth – I mean, unless there’s a global pandemic that’s putting society into lockdown (coronavirus). But if scientists and Greta Thunberg are onto anything, it’s that climate change is a ticking time bomb, and it won’t be long until we’ll have to consider jumping ship.
Billionaire tech bros like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have been entertaining the idea of building space settlements for years. In 2022, Musk’s company Space X will be sending its first cargo mission to Mars, followed by a second mission with crew in 2024, with hopes to build a thriving city and, eventually, a self-sustaining community. But there’s a throbbing problem at hand – namely, it’s all good and well to imagine a spacefaring civilisation of futuristic astronaut people, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that even with the most advanced technology and the most rigorous training, we’re human, all too human. Intimacy and sexuality are basic needs, and for space exploration and colonisation to succeed, it needs to be physically and psychologically viable for space travellers to have sex in space.
While the idea of engaging in cosmic coitus, surrounded (literally) by stars and other aesthetically-pleasing gaseous objects, might sound romantic, the reality isn’t that. You’re crammed into a tiny metal hatch with a handful of people for a prolonged period of time (read: years). You’re isolated, have almost zero privacy, not to mention that fewer people means it’s more difficult to find a partner with compatible personalities, sexual orientation, and more. Also, if a relationship ends, you’re stuck with that person for a very long time, which isn’t great for team morale, to say the least.
“It’s just human problems, you know?” says Kate Devlin, a lecturer in social and cultural artificial intelligence at King’s College London and author of Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots. “It’s really just the practicalities of being stuck on a spaceship for years with people that annoy the hell out of you.”
Yet Devlin maintains that while the years-long lack of privacy might drive us insane, humanity has never struggled to have sex, even in desperate times. “People have always found a way to find privacy for sex, even when they’re living in close quarters. I imagine there are certainly some restrictions but we’re good at being human and keeping it going,” she explains. “Humans are so adept at adapting to different environments. We always seem to just settle on the easiest route wherever it’s convenient,” she tells us. “I think that sure you’ve got impracticalities if you want to have sex with someone else, and you’re in an environment where you have to wear a helmet, so that’s gonna be pretty harsh,” she muses.
Assuming there’s no space bae to keep you occupied on your lightyears trek across the galaxy, however, a recent article by Simon Dube and Dave Anctil, specialists in the cognition of human sexuality, sextech, and erobotics, has suggested that erobots – an umbrella term for all virtual, embodied, and augmented erotic technologies, including sex robots, chatbots, and virtual or augmented partners – could pose a solution to this problem. “Erobots represent a practical solution to tackle the inhuman conditions of space exploration and colonisation. Unlike previous technologies, erobots offer the opportunity of intimate relations with artificial agents tailored to the needs of their users,” they say. “These partners will be able to manifest themselves through various interfaces such as cellphones, computers, gaming consoles, and virtual reality equipment.”
“Erobots represent a practical solution to tackle the inhuman conditions of space exploration and colonisation” – Simon Dube and Dave Anctil
For instance, physical intimacy can manifest “through virtual or augmented reality and be combined with sex toys to provide interactive and immersive erotic experiences”, they explain. This way, users can use VR headsets and sex toys in sync to create multi-sensoral experiences. Devlin agrees: “There is some amazing new forms of sex technology that are interesting and accessible. There’s loads of modern crazy toys out there that would work, and they’re easy to store and contain.” British company Hot Octopus, for example, makes sex-tech for those with spinal cord injury, allowing them to reach orgasm through artificial masturbation. “Things like that exist to make sex easier, by creating a hands-free experience,” she explains. “Another example, Mister Vibe, has created a malleable vibrator that can be shaped in different ways, making it easier to use in settings with varying gravity.”
While sex robots could also be utilised, Dube and Anctil maintain that they only represent “a fraction of what erobots are and can be as a result of the advancement, combination and the interconnectivity of new technologies”. Devlin agrees: “If you’re looking for intimacy and companionship, I would say that in robots, the intensity of sex has yet to be properly developed. Most sex robots are just prototypes, they’re essentially large, full-size sex toys with very little mechanisation and some rudimentary chatbot technology.”
As for emotional intimacy, Devlin suggests looking to artificial intelligence, in a similar way to how Joaquin Phoenix in HER uses Scarlett Johansson, an AI virtual assistant, to curb his loneliness. “The socialisation we create is very human, and we look for it in our tech as well. Even when we know it’s not real, even when we know it’s tech,” she says, referencing household devices like Google Home and Alexa. Admittedly, if we’ve learnt anything from any sci-fi ever (Space Odyssey, Moon, and even Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), it’s that these ‘assistants’ will most likely develop psychopathic tendencies and use us for their own gain, but we still have a few more years until we have to worry about that, right?
According to NASA and other space agencies, no human has attempted sex in space, which either means it hasn’t happened, or no-one is talking about it. But if prolonged trips to the moon and settlements in Mars are going to become a thing in the near horizon, we have to recognise the importance of intimacy and sexuality in human life as we journey to the final frontier.